Hot dog, it's Lent!
Reprinted from Our Sunday Visitor, March 23, 2003
Well, not hot dog, exactly. Not hamburger either, or fried chicken, or filet-o-fish; not even a milkshake. And that's no baloney.
As Catholics observe Lent with sacrifices that are frequently kept private, Eastern Orthodox Christians keep a Lenten observance that is both more communal and more demanding. From March 9 to Pascha (Easter) on April 27, Orthodox will eat no meat, fish (excepting shellfish), eggs, cheese, or other dairy products. Except on weekends they will not drink alcohol or use olive oil, which some interpret this to mean all oils.
What's left? Grains, vegetables, and fruits: oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, spaghetti marinara for dinner. You get to know the mysteries of soy. (My friend Juli sings: "You made me tofu; I didn't wanna try it, I thought I'd rather diet.") You use Japanese, Chinese, and Indian cookbooks. Of course, ingenious food manufacturers offer many alternatives that are acceptable, if not natural. One Lent I searched among the items at a gas station. After reading dozens of labels, I came up with this: a Moon Pie.
There's a subtle difference between Catholic and Orthodox spirituality regarding fasting. For Catholics, all penance has three elements: sorrow for sins, amendment of life, and reparation to Divine justice. While Orthodox would affirm the first two, they'd find the third baffling. It wasn't until after the East-West split (11th century) that the idea took hold that our sins create a debt to God, which Jesus paid with his blood, and to which we can contribute sacrifices.
For Orthodox Christians, it's different. We believe that the "wages of sin" make us captives of Death, and Jesus rescued us by his blood. We would say that it was a sacrifice to the Father, as a brave soldier might offer a risky mission to his beloved general. But the soldier isn't *paying* the general; Orthodox don't think Jesus *paid* the Father, because the Father wasn't holding us captive. The Evil One was holding us captive, and was overcome when Jesus invaded his realm and rescued us, at the cost of his own blood.
That might sound like an obscure theological distinction, but it results in a whole different attitude toward fasting. For Orthodox, it's about sorrow for sin and strength for amendment of life--but not sacrifice, expiation, or reparation. It's forward-looking, rather than aimed at squaring past misdeeds. It's about increasing health, rather than diminishing debt.
So for Orthodox Christians, this fast is akin to training for a triathlon. It's a workout. St. Paul, of course, frequently used such metaphors, saying we should "strive like athletes for the prize." The Greek word for athletic training is "ascesis."
A football team in training may watch videos of past games and observe where they made mistakes. Likewise, we examine our lives and notice patterns of recurrent sin. Sin alienates us from the God who loves us; it sickens us and diminishes our ability to bear his radiant presence. We are sorry for our sins, sorry that we have behaved ungratefully toward the one who has given us everything, even rescued us by His blood.
So we repent. We pray to be given deeper repentance, and confess our sins to Christ in the presence of the priest. The priest pronounces sacramental forgiveness, and can also give guidance about growing stronger to resist sin in the future. He is like a trainer giving an athlete exercises geared to his personal strengths and weaknesses. Fasting is one of the classic exercises, but they also include reading Scripture and other Christian works, attendance at services throughout the week, and constant interior prayer with mental vigilance to evaluate thoughts before embracing them.
Fasting is one of the most-used "exercise machines" at the gym. It works out the willpower muscle, so that we have more self-control not only over impulsive eating, but also over other sinful impulses, like anger or envy. Disciplines of the mind strengthen the body, and disciplines of the body strengthen the mind.
Though this is the standard Orthodox Lenten fast, if you ask your friends you'll likely find variation. An individual in consultation with his or her priest may be following an amended "exercise routine." Perhaps the person has medical or personal reasons for mitigating the fast; perhaps they are just not spiritually strong enough, and the long weeks of Lent drag them down. Exercise should bend, not break, the athlete, and a weaker athlete must start with a smaller weight.
We don't say the priest gives a "dispensation" for this-it's not like bending a law, the cop letting you go without a ticket. We say the priest gives a "blessing" to adjust the fast to your needs, like a doctor adjusting a prescription for your health. If we notice somebody else is not keeping the fast, it's none of our business.
Not just individuals but whole parishes may observe the fast differently. From earliest years fasting followed community rather than universal guidelines. When St. Monica visited Rome she was surprised that they did not fast on Saturday before the Sunday Eucharist. She asked her pastor, St. Ambrose, about this. He famously replied not to be concerned about it, but "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
I was once explaining the fast to a Catholic friend and she said, "People would just shop around for the most lenient priest." That makes sense if you're trying to get away with the minimal reparation. But if your desire is to grow in spiritual health, it's like shopping for the trainer who'd give you the shortest exercise routine, or the doctor who'd make you take just half your pills. What's the point?
We begin the pre-Lenten season with the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, noting that the prideful one who boasts "I fast twice a week" gains nothing by it. On Pascha, when the long fast is over, we hear St. John Chrysostom's sermon reminding us that those who came to the vineyard at the eleventh hour received the same reward. Everyone is welcome to the Paschal feast, no matter how they kept the fast.
"You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is fully laden; feast sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away...O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown."
We have fasted all together, and at the end we feast all together, a bit stronger than when we started. No wonder we feel like celebrating. Pass the fatted calf!